Thursday, March 03, 2005

Class Yarn

Instead of spending the last three days with my hands guiding yarn and needle, I've spent them flying through Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. I've been meaning to read this book for years, fascinated as I am by the fact that our alleged classless society remains as segregated by social stata as it is by race. The short version of the story is this -- Barbara Ehrenreich is traumatized by welfare "reform" and wants to see how it's possible for people coming off welfare to make enough money to survive. So she takes low wage jobs in different parts of the country and tries to eek out a living on the meager income. It was a depressing, heartwarming, shocking, hilarious and life-changing experience for her, and for anyone who reads it.

So I'm feelin' Marx-crazy these days, sneering at the well-heeled people with whom I share the train, the sidewalk, the office, and at the same time, I'm hanging my head in shame as I ponder my "need" for new shoes or skeins. But most of all, as I'm trekking through my favorite blogs and miles of links, and sharing people's excitement at their newly finished knitted creations, I am becoming increasingly disturbed.

Crafters were born of meager means. Back-in-the-day, crafters were (mainly) women who learned to stitch as a money-saving technique. Yarn and a couple needles were much cheaper than mittens from the local shop. And I came to knitting for those same reasons. Going through a very rough financial patch, I tried to imagine ways to minimize my costs. With an infant in the house, I figured that sewing and knitting some of his clothes would help a bit. But ... I was wrong. Times have changed since my grandmother raised her babies. Fabric, yarn, and notions are expensive. And the ability to sit still and count stitches is a luxury that few people have.

Now I sit behind my fancy computer, at my fancy job, which rests on my fancy college degree, wearing my fancy clothes, made from fancy fiber, and I am disturbed when I read these knitting blogs that seem more focused on how many projects they can churn out, or how much yarn is in their stash, or how many hours they sit with needles in their lap, or how many projects they have going on simultaneously, or how wonderful their trip to X city was-when they visited X knitting store-and purchased X pile of knitting supplies [see photo of booty]. I can't help but wonder -- how much money does this cost??? And do you understand that most people can't make these same choices?

Writing a blog can be cheap, but generally, it's not. Knitting is expensive, the digital camera is expensive, a high-speed internet connection is expensive, and the luxury of blog-writing time is expensive. Do we yarn snob bloggers ever stop and consider how truly privileged we are?

I would love to read a blog written by someone who is actually struggling to make ends meet, and who happily buys Red Heart and other acrylics because that's what's sold at Walmart for $2/pound.

That blog might be motivated by a true love of knitting, and a true love of sharing that joy through the written word. If you know of such a blog, please let me know.


Anonymous said...

You have an excellent point. Crafting has become the time-filler of the bored and wealthy. A good deal of those B&W are teenagers, though, and I can't say I'm dismayed at a lot of them showing real creativity and skill rather than wasting time shopping at malls and watching Sex in the City. Also, as far as the "wealthy" part goes, I've seen some people on the craft boards thrift-shopping for craft items (sweaters for felting or even yarns they pick up and dye with Kool-Aid). Admittedly, that's a small percentage, but it's uplifting to see nonetheless.

Also in the way of finance, what I'm seeing more and more on those craft boards are "reconstructed" crafts: jewelry made from those flat-bottom glass marbles for aquariums, purses made from ties (I was so impressed by it that I made one myself), a punk corset made from pieces of a taken-down billboard poster with boning from old plastic bottles, and various furniture pieced together from things around the house that really looked artistic. I believe this is where real crafting, like in the early days of crafting, is going, away from the expensive scrapbooking kits you buy from major chain craft stores.

I started crafting (sewing, crocheting, knitting) after-hours because I wanted to be sure my garments were not sweatshop-made and to increase my number of organic and cruelty-free wears. Neither a guaranteed union-made label nor organic one has a big selection in plus sizes (and thrift stores holding my size? If I'm LUCKY). Months later, I've learned that sewing takes so many hunched-over (owww!) hours that I'm really rethinking that purchase of a used sewing machine; and the organic yarn and fabric prices are astronomical. I knew I wouldn't actually be saving money by doing this but it seems to be cost the same as or more than shopping at expensive boutiques for clothes. In addition, there are the hours put in on it. Plus I suck at sewing.

Probably the aspect on your wish that I wish to see is someone that not only knits, sews, whatever, and blogs about it but actually wears the crafts s/he makes the majority of the time.

I'm de-emphasizing gender on purpose here, too, because it seems that men are getting into the crafting aspect in larger numbers. Whenever I go into the fabric store, for instance, I see just as many men as women there, and the men aren't there with their girlfriends or wives (or boyfriends, to kick a stereotype). The craft boards appear to have a growing number of men posting their creations as well.

Great article you wrote!

Anonymous said...

Nice post.

Also, a lot of traditional crafts were literally pastimes--something to fill up long winter evenings in the pre-TV era. Now, when someone crafts an object, it's usually because they want the object itself, not the activity.

So one reason (IMO) crafts have become more expensive is that crafters don't want to go to all that effort to make something shlocky.

My dear grandmother crocheted with whatever yarn was on sale--she said it kept her fingers limber as she got older. But in all affection, I have to say that the things she made were hideous. Not for lack of craftswomanship, but because she started with hideous materials.

Molly, NYC

Anonymous said...

I beg to differ on wanting the item rather than the process. I knit for the process - it's relaxing and enjoyable to me. I have yet to complete something for myself - it's usually a sweater or hat or scarf for one child or another. It's my hobby - not my craft. While I may spend $100 or so on a pattern book and yarn for a sweater, the (seemingly) countless hours of enjoyment that I get out of the process is what keeps me plugging along. It's almost anticlimactic to actually finish something sometimes!

I truly wonder how many of us could survive in the days of make it if you want it, grow it or kill it if you want to eat it of our ancestors. I'm happy I don't have to knit - or I'd have precious little to wear. But I'm happy to knit what I want.

Anonymous said...

When something becomes a hobby, rather than a necessity (sp?) then the idea of a "luxury" comes into place, and we spend lots of money on stuff.

If I'm going to spend a month knitting something that I could buy next door at the Gap in five minutes, then I'm not monkeying around with no Red Heart. Know what I mean.

That said, I see lots of beginners forking over way more than they need to just because some particular (very expensive) yarn catches their fancy.

For me, a large stash (I just read that some knitter has about 2,000 skeins (!) in her stash) would be overwhelming. I pick up nice yarns when I see them and when I have a project in mind for them (and when they fit into the budget). The little ephiphany I had recently was that I realized that it's YARN. There'll be more yarn later. It's not absolutely crucial that I buy this yarn right now no matter what.

Anonymous said...

I think it's evident that the whole craft resurgence is fuelled by several, sometimes quite contradictory, impulses, e.g. actually saving money vs hoarding yarn a movie star has been seen with. And I don't see any reason to suppose that individual crafters can't be likewise divided.

It's not surprsing that tech and division-of-labor between them make bought clothes usually cheaper than homemade; I think that would hold (less strongly) even without exploited labor and environments. I suspect that the idea that homemade clothes "should" be cheaper is left over from the era when women's labor was underpaid, often free. Note that the belief that it's cheaper to grow your own wheat died out much sooner...

The cheerful sides of craftery seem, to me, to be first an immersion in the sensual that virtual and massproduced life blunts; and second, the opposite of alienation of labor - my sweater is lumpy but it's really, really mine.

Some of the shopping is understandable as a sensual pleasure, like color-field paintings. Sure, some of it is showing-off; that's not new; we can expect a revival of the nineteenth-c. essay genre of "My workbox is exactly right in plenitude and niceness, whereas simpler ones are underprepared and fancier ones are vain." I think Catherine Beecher wrote one of those.

I agree with the comment above that there's a lot of cool craft in reusing exisiting postindustrial Stuff; I can't forget the Victorian games of potichomanie, or making things out of the wings of dinner turkeys, or hideous cardboard mats...

Anonymous said...

fascinating discussion... I've been trying to use wool thrifted or bought from charity shops to keep costs down. I have a strong reuse recycle gene anyway... good point about the privilege of digital cameras et all to blog

Anonymous said...

i'm grateful every day for the gifts i have. i know how lucky i am to live this way: with health, love, safety and wealth compared to millions in this world.

wenders said...

Loved today's post (yay, Wifey!) and this older post.

I'd agree with what people have already said, but I would like to point out that at least crafters are doing something creative with their time and money spent. We could be going to bars, gambling, who knows least knitting, while an expensive hobby, does actually have some redeeming quality to it and is accesible to many.

I also see knitting as filling a void that our high-tech jobs build - a need for community, creativity, and something tangible to complete. Perhaps it's a re-purposed art/craft, just like those ties that made a handbag.

Some knitters may be cranking out FO after FO so that they feel they've made something 'real'.

After all, why do we blog? For me personally, it is not because I have some amazing information about knitting, or mad technique skills that need to be shared - it's because I don't know many like minded people in real life and wanted to know if they exist 'out there'.

And to think that I could meet them when I travel would be amazing, and would make a disconnected world feel smaller.